Presented as a Western anthology of six short genre-tweaking tales, Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels, not surprisingly, a bit scattershot and episodic. Bankrolled by Netflix, whose deep pockets allow for just this sort of quirky experimentation, the film is a decidedly mixed bag. Two of the chapters stand with some of the best work the merry-prankster filmmakers have ever done, while the rest are varying degrees of… fine.
If you’re the kind of person who enjoys eating dessert before the main course, you’ll be happy to know that the first sagebrush chapter is the strongest. In it, Tim Blake Nelson (who previously saddled up with the Coens in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?) plays a sunny singin’-and-gunslingin’ cowboy who has a habit of talking so much that he winds up getting into a heap of high-noon duels. He’s like Gene Autry, if Gene Autry starred in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead. And his pitch-perfect performance coupled with the Coen’s mastery of tone are giddy dynamite.
From there, things go downhill as a bungling, bank-robbing James Franco goes from one hard-luck encounter to the next like an Old West Job. The segment ends with Franco about to be hanged, delivering a one-liner that isn’t quite as funny as the Coens seem to think it is. It’s a smirky ellipsis rather than an riotous exclamation point. In the third chapter, Liam Neeson plays a traveling promoter whose sole attraction is a limbless orator who delivers soulful recitations of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. That is, until he sees dollar signs in a mathematical chicken and gets a morbid idea. It’s certainly a bizarre premise, but it never quite takes flight or leaves much of an impression. Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it in my mind (unfavorably) to the 1955 Looney Tunes short “One Froggy Evening.”
Things pick up a bit in the fourth chapter, in which Tom Waits (is it really possible that he’s never been a grizzled Coen brothers character before?) plays, yes, a grizzled old prospector staking his sanity on one last vein of gold in the ground. Inspired by a Jack London story, this section feels like a palate cleanser. Waits is perfect, all alone, talking to the earth like he’s trying to coax a secret out of it. But it all feels a bit slight — a triumph of character over story. Especially compared to the bittersweet penultimate chapter.
Zoe Kazan plays a single woman heading west on a wagon train with her brother, who plans to marry her off when they reach their destination. She’s lonely and hopeful, but also resigned in a way that plays out in the sadness on her face. Then she finds a spark of romance with one of the frontier party’s leaders (Bill Heck). But Coen brothers movies are rocky places where happy endings rarely find purchase. And the short builds to a heartbreaking conclusion that leaves you with an emotional welt. It’s the only moment in the film that manages to recapture Nelson and Buster Scruggs’ front-loaded promise.
The final act is an outright homage to John Ford’s 1939 Western classic Stagecoach, with none of the social impact. A ragtag group of passengers in a stagecoach are heading west, each taking their turn to tell his or her story. And despite the presence of a bunch of character-actor all-stars such as Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, and Saul Rubinek, it never rises to the anthology-closing grandeur or statement of purpose that you both expect and want. In a way, it feels like a rock band ending a concept album with their weakest and most self-indulgent track. Oh well. Even hit-and-miss Coens movies are still better than most other directors’ top-tier ones. And so it goes that even when Buster Scruggs isn’t firing on all cylinders, it remains a warm and cheeky tribute to a genre that the brothers behind True Grit and No Country For Old Men clearly love. It’s a shame that there aren’t as many monumental peaks as there are monumental valleys. B
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